Monday, March 08, 2010

Charter schools in Harlem

Jason Riley has a nice story about all the choices for parents that have sprung up in Harlem since New York passed a charter law.
"Harlem now has more school choice per square foot than any other place in the country," says Eva Moskowitz, who operates four charters in Harlem. Nationwide, the average black 12th grader reads at the level of a white eighth grader. Yet Harlem charter students at schools like KIPP and Democracy Prep are outperforming their white peers in wealthy suburbs. At the Promise Academy charter schools, 97% of third graders scored at or above grade level in math. At Harlem Village Academy, 100% of eighth graders aced the state science exam. Every third grader at Harlem Success Academy 1, operated by Ms. Moskowitz, passed the state math exam, and 71% of them achieved the top score.

When Seth Andrew, a founder of Democracy Prep, set up his charter middle school in 2006, it occupied the same building as a traditional public middle school that opened the same year. "We both opened with sixth grade and about 100 kids, though we had more special-ed children and English language learners," he says. "After two years in the same building with the same kids on the same floor, this school was the lowest-performing school in Harlem, and we were the highest-performing school in Harlem."
And Harlem parents are responding. They're breaking all the stereotypes that low-income, minority parents won't take the time and effort to research which schools would be the best fit for their children. They care and they'll come out in a snow storm to find out about better choices for their children. And their choices are not the regular public schools.
Ms. Moskowitz, a former city council member, says that turnout at the education fair—hundreds of parents and children arrived early and stood outside in the cold before the doors were opened—refute claims that low-income minorities are indifferent to their children's educational needs. "I've never met an apathetic mom of any race or ethnicity," she says. "They all want good schools for their kids. It's a problem of supply, not demand."

Daniel Clark, who attended the fair with his son, Daniel Jr., an eighth grader at Democracy Prep, pulled his child out of a district school two years ago after the boy was attacked by school bullies in the bathroom. Mr. Clark got a call to pick him up at the hospital.

"I just happened to get a flyer about Democracy Prep soon after that," he says. "We entered the admissions lottery and got accepted. I didn't know anything about charters. I was just looking for an escape."

Mr. Clark says students at Democracy Prep are told to cross the street before walking past the district school down the block "to avoid, literally, raining textbooks—books being thrown out of the school at them. That's the school my son is zoned for. If he wasn't in Democracy Prep, that's the school he'd be in—the school with the book throwers!"
But still the teacher unions will fight tooth-and-nail to keep parents from having that choice.
This year, Harlem's charter schools received more than 11,000 applications for 2,000 available slots. More than 7,000 children are on wait lists. Yet the United Federation of Teachers and its political acolytes in the New York state legislature are hell-bent on blocking school choice for underprivileged families. Worried that high-performing charters are "saturating" Harlem, State Sen. Bill Perkins and State Assemblyman Keith Wright have backed legislation that would gut state per-pupil funding at charter schools and allow a single charter operator to educate no more than 5% of a district's students. Unions dislike charter schools because many aren't organized. But how does limiting the replication of successful public education models benefit ghetto kids?

These obstructionists, Mr. Clark says, aren't doing the community any favors. "The teachers unions ought to be ashamed of themselves because they know better than I do how bad these schools are," he says. "Everybody on my block and in my building and around the corner . . . they all want charter schools. They don't want a political debate."
Stories like this, from place after place, of parents who want to get out of the regular public schools but are being blocked by the political pressure of the teachers unions are both inspiring and disheartening. At the school where I teach, we have approximately 10 applicants for every open spot. Yet the state legislator wouldn't even support raising the cap on charter schools from 100 to 105.